A year of staying adaptable officially comes full circle this weekend, the one-year anniversary of the day students in Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley were told not to return to classes after Spring Break because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The anniversary comes as teachers and school personnel have become the target population for COVID vaccination and the nation begins a slow return something approaching pre-pandemic normalcy.

After moving to 100% distance learning after Spring Break 2020, schools have been gradually returning to in-person instruction, albeit with elements of distance learning included and numerous health safeguards. As of late last week, about 30% of students in the Los Fresnos school district were attending in-person classes, while the figure for the Brownsville Independent School District was 14%, officials said.

“It has been a year of adaptability,” BISD Superintendent Rene Gutierrez said Thursday. “We’ve been having to adapt on a daily basis because of the pandemic, because none of us had this type of experience before. … We were adapting on a daily basis because of this virus we were dealing with. We were learning every day something new and we were adapting.”

Gutierrez cautioned that the pandemic is not over yet, “but we’re seeing better results because of the vaccines …I would describe it as a year of adapting to everyday changes that were occurring and adapting to those changes the best that we could. … We were working all the time,” he said.

“At the same time the instructional component to our kids has continued and we were trying to make that work through devices and through connectivity so our kids could continue to connect with us through distance learning,” he added.

“We were all trying to do the best that we could given the circumstances with the pandemic. I’ve always said it’s not about having the right answers or the wrong answers. It’s about adapting.”

Gutierrez said while keeping the district running, providing meals and instruction, BISD also has had to comply with regulations from the Texas Education Agency, Cameron County, the city of Brownsville and the federal government.

In this March 11, 2020 file photo, custodial staffer Hortensia Salinas uses an Electrostatic Clorox Sprayer to spray disinfectant in a classroom at Brownsville Early College High School in Brownsville. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“We had to make it work, we had to balance all of those requirements,” he said, thanking the BISD Board of Trustees, administrators and everyone from food service personnel to janitors and other school staff for their efforts in keeping the district moving forward.

Providing every child with a device and internet connectivity made distance learning work and will endure beyond the pandemic in the form of three learning models: face-to-face instruction, distance learning and a hybrid of the two, Gutierrez said.

“We’re eager to have the students come back and we invite the students who are struggling to come back to the campuses because face-to-face instruction is the best method to improve performance,” he said.

At Stell Middle School, teacher Martin Leal gave his seventh-grade history students an assignment weeks into the pandemic to document how COVID-19 was changing their lives.

At the time grocery store shelves were running short of every-day supplies including toilet paper as the reality of the pandemic sank in.

The essays the students turned in reflected a mixture of fear and longing for a more normal life.

“Before they looked forward to interacting on Snapchat and Instagram. Now they found themselves longing to just talk to people,” Leal said.

One student decried how rude and selfish people were becoming, while another marveled at how much closer his family was becoming under the lockdown.

Leal said his profession had stepped up during the pandemic and would do what is necessary to have students successfully return to classrooms.

As in every other year, the progression toward end of the year activities and graduation season is relentless.

Gutierrez said STAAR testing and End of Course exams will take place this year for benchmarking purposes, with students required to come to the campuses for testing.

Planning is already underway for graduation ceremonies at Sams Memorial Stadium.

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